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T. H. White – The Once and Future King

September 3, 2007

92. The Once and Future King by T. H. White (1958)

Length: 639 pages

Genre: Fantasy

Started: 10 July 2007
Finished: 03 September 2007

Summary: Consisting of four books (The Sword in the Stone, from whence comes the Disney movie; The Queen of the Air, The Ill-Made Knight, and Candle in the Wind), this book is a retelling of the story of King Arthur from his boyhood being tutored by Merlin, through the founding of the Round Table, the adultery of Guenever and Lancelot, and finally up through his betrayal at the hands of Mordred, his bastard son.

Review: I picked this book up on the basis of two things: first, my relatively new-found enthusiasm for Arthurian legend, and second, all of the lists of the fantasy that any fantasy fan should have read tend to have this right near the top. And while I can see – up to a point – why it’s a fantasy classic, that does not by extension mean that it’s right for everyone who enjoys fantasy. I found this book to be a struggle in terms of content, style, and especially language. White veers off into frequent tangents and descriptions that don’t seem relevant to the characters or the moral or the plot. The language used in the dialogue is certainly colorful, but literal transcription of various dialects is a literary device best used sparingly, and in this case didn’t seem to have a point other than to slow the reader down as he tries to sound out the mishmash of letters. I also got rather tired of the device of having almost all action described in dialogue by two spectators, instead of by the narrator. The anachronisms in the narration were charming and funny at first, but they too suffered from severe over-use. Finally, I think that Arthurian legend and the notion of Camelot are a lot more poignant and meaningful when we’re not being bludgeoned over the head with the Moral of the Story for several paragraphs every chapter. If we’re smart enough to plow through near-impenetrable language and navigate the twisting channels of diversion to find the plot, we’re smart enough to make inferences about the futility of war and the state of the human condition and the notion of justice on our own. 2 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Sword in the Stone might be worth reading on its own for the imaginative story, the rest of it can be found in more enjoyable form elsewhere.

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First Line: On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 27, 2011 3:00 pm

    So glad I’m not the only one who found this one sort of ho-hum. I expected greatness because of it’s inclusion on a few lists, but it just didn’t deliver. My biggest problem with it was one that you mentioned–the telling of the story through long sections of dialogue, or sometimes just one person doing a “here’s what happened” kind of a thing. I wonder if it was more powerful back in the day…

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